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Elections complimented, with reservations

By
GAURAV GHOSE, UPI Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that the Nov. 2 elections in the United States "mostly met" its provisions of international election standards agreed upon by its 55 members.

Invited by the U.S. government to monitor the November elections -- both presidential and congressional -- the OSCE said in a press statement Thursday in Washington, D.C., that the elections were "conducted in an environment that reflects a long democratic tradition, including institutions governed by rule of law, free and professional media and civil society involved in all aspects of the election process."

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OSCE was previously invited to observe the 1996, 2000 and 2002 elections. However, it sent its observers for the first time during the midterm elections in 2002 and followed it up with the recall gubernatorial election of California in 2003.

The November 2004 election was OSCE's maiden presidential-election observation mission, and its mission team, comprised of 92 observers, included 56 members of parliaments from 34 countries for the first time. The observers visited voting precincts in 11 states.

This year's presidential election assumed special significance in light of the Florida debacle of 2000, which invited criticism from within and without. Democratic members of the U.S. Congress wanted the United Nations to send an observation team to this year's election, but it declined. The U.S. State Department extended an invitation to the OSCE to send its team.

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"It is a sign of the credibility of the U.S. within the OSCE," said Barbara Haering, chairwoman of the observation mission, referring to the State Department's invitation. Congratulating the electorate for the huge turnout and impressed with the passion of the campaign workers on the ground, Haering said there was much to learn for all OSCE participating members.

However, most congressional elections, Haering noted, were far less competitive compared to the presidential election, and the reason, she added, was the way in which the congressional districts were drawn to favor the incumbent party.

She also noted that there were significant issues of concern that came to the attention of the OSCE's election-observation mission on Election Day as well as during the pre-election period.

On Tuesday, the day of the election, a few of the delegation members were barred from entering specific polling stations.

"I was not allowed in any of the polling stations in Orange County in Florida," said Kimmo Kiljunen, a member of the Finnish parliament. There were other members who were stopped in North Carolina and Ohio.

On being prohibited entry, Kiljunen got in touch with Florida state officials. But they could not be of help, given the decentralized nature of conducting elections in the United States. "I was told the counties have their own rules and they have the right to stop anyone," he said.

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As a recommendation, the report states, the "Congress and individual states should consider introducing legal provisions allowing unimpeded access to all stages of the election process for international observers who have been invited to observe the elections by the U.S. Government. Similar provisions should extend to domestic non-partisan observers."

The other important concern pointed out in the preliminary report was the very long queues reported in many polling stations, which "lacked the capacity to ensure reasonably prompt throughput of voters."

"Significant delays at the polling station are likely to deter some voters from voting and may restrict the right to vote. While the solution to this problem may have cost implications, it is clearly desirable that steps are taken to reduce delays in future elections," the report added.

In the pre-election period, allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression, mainly among minorities, were widely reported and presented to the election-observation mission, and the widespread nature of such allegations, according to the preliminary findings, may undermine confidence in the electoral process.

"A coherent approach to such issues is highly desirable addressing both fraud prevention and ensuring full enfranchisement. Suffrage is best protected when both election administrators and voters themselves take responsibility for ensuring that the voter lists are accurately (sic) and well maintained," the report said.

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The Help America Vote Act initiated election reforms to address the weaknesses identified in the 2000 elections. But to date its impact has been positive but limited due to delays in its implementation, said Rita Suessmuth, head of the OSCE long-term mission.

HAVA provided the creation of a federal Election Assistance Commission with powers to issue guidance on the implementation of minimum federal standards and administer payments to states for the introduction of new election technology. But delay in appointing the EAC in December 2003 limited its impact on these elections, the OSCE said in its report.

HAVA, the report added, required all states to introduce statewide registration databases by Jan. 1, 2004, but most states opted for the waiver provision until Jan. 1, 2006, and as a result "the advantages which the statewide registration would provide ... were not available in the majority of the states."

The rules on provisional ballots, which were a problem in the 2000 elections, continued to be so in some states in this year's election as well. The closeness of the race in Ohio had at one point seemed to necessitate the continued counting of provisional ballots till Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential contender, conceded the election.

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The problem, the report points out, is with regard to the ambiguous nature of the rule of whether the voter must cast the ballot in his or her allocated precinct for the provisional ballot to be counted. Also, the deadlines for verification and counting of such ballots vary from state to state with the potential to delay the announcement of the results.

One of HAVA's central goals was to replace lever and punch-card voting machines with direct recording electronic machines with a manual-audit capacity. Most notably Florida has achieved the goal, but several counties in many states have deferred it to implement this provision later before the deadline of Jan. 1, 2006.

Given that federal standards for election technology are not mandatory, the report said, there are no uniform certification procedures. And in the absence of such procedures, it urges a prompt introduction of a paper audit trail.

"It would seem appropriate to regard HAVA as a work in progress in the context of a comprehensive electoral reform process," the report noted. "It is hoped that future reforms will further enhance consistency regarding the following: voter registration criteria and procedures, rules for issuing, verifying and counting provisional ballots; voter identification requirements; absentee voting by eligible citizens living abroad."

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"Their (OSCE's) calling for national standards for voter registration and for counting of ballots is a fundamental misunderstanding of the American system," said Thomas P. Kilgannon of the conservative Freedom Alliance.

"We don't need a national election czar, we don't need international monitors to point out to us what the problems may have been in a given place on a given day," Kilgannon said. "We are more than capable of improving the system ourselves."

Most observers said that overall they did not experience much opposition to their presence and were mostly welcomed, especially by the voters.

"We were accepted very openly and ... they took it as a compliment that we were visiting their states," Haering said.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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